Photo: Jared Shute
It probably goes without saying that living through the worst pandemic in a century during a time already marred by inequality, environmental collapse and a growing far-right presence has been tough for everyone in some form, and for months now all anyone has been able to hope for is an end to the deaths and a return to some of that which we’ve lost. But right now after a year of lockdown, gearing up for the supposed end of the pandemic is just another source of anxiety. On a wider scale, how do we return to “normal” when normal already wasn’t working for most of the population? But on a more insular level, it’s difficult to reckon with what we want to achieve in life and how we can improve as individuals once the world finally begins to revert back to where it was pre-Covid.
Fittingly, it’s a similar sense of self-reflection, of overcoming dark times to create a better self, that lies at the heart of Modern Grotesque, the new album from Providence, Rhode Island’s Dreamwell. Blending elements of old school and new wave screamo, the five-piece have created an intense and cathartic record that explores the idea of being trapped in times of struggle, but finds hope in the personal growth that can sometimes come through pain.
“When it came time to do the bulk of this writing, I was kind of going through a mild obsession with Flannery O’Connor and the kinds of characters she wrote a lot of the time,” explains vocalist Keziah Staska. “She wrote these characters who are these kind of twisted people who usually reflected the darker elements of southern culture of the time and were all badly in need of redemption. But she talks about how there always needs to be a fall before someone can be redeemed, and she was more interested in that part of the arc.”
It was a contemporary approach to O’Connor’s brand of southern grotesque literature that gives Modern Grotesque its name. “I wanted to write characters who are all trapped in moments of suffering that immediately preceded them taking the first step to changing themselves,” Staska continues. “It’s kind of a reflection on how growth can come from pain as long as you persevere. Some songs deal with personal issues, some with more societal issues like homophobia, poverty, capitalism etc. Some almost end with a hint of hope, and some don’t. But ‘Sisyphean Happiness’, the album closer, is almost like an epilogue for all of these characters to tie it all together. A final message of hope.”
Originally formed in 2016 with their debut album The Distance Grows Fonder dropping a year later, Dreamwell combine elements of early Touché Amoré and Pianos Become The Teeth with darker inspirations via the likes of Circle Takes The Square, Julie Christmas and Pg. 99.
The band got together after guitarist Aki McCullough moved to the Providence area from Boston and noticed a Facebook post about wanting to start a band. With the other members having already previously played in bands together, McCullough recalls the first time the members met up as a band: “I still remember the first day I showed up to practice, driving an hour into the wilderness and showing up at Justin’s [Soares, bass] barn super sketched to hang out with a bunch of people I was meeting for the first time. But we ended up clicking right away and had written ‘Bury Me’ basically by the end of that practice and completing most of what would be The Distance Grows Fonder in the first two or three months as a band.”
The band gelled quickly, but the later addition of Staska on vocal duties is an element which McCullough says really helped with the chemistry of the band.
“Ryan [Couitt, guitar] was in my doom band for a while and we had played shows with Dreamwell prior to that as well, so that’s how we met.” adds Staska. “When Ryan asked me to come hang at a practice, I asked him to send me some music and I wrote what would become ‘Painting Myself A Darker Day’ that afternoon so I would have something to offer. It’s funny, Ryan told me at the time that they were afraid I might take them in too heavy of a direction because of my background. Now they got me singing a full-on emo ballad. It’s like the opposite was true.”
Despite lineup changes, Dreamwell have always seemed to be confident in the direction they want to go both musically and thematically, and whether that be more conceptual or talking directly about lived experiences, the band really seems to know their own identity. It’s given them a solid foundation from which to explore different avenues within the screamo/post-hardcore world.
Even during the band’s relatively short existence they have noticed a shift within the scene, however, and one which they believe is for the better. “Even back when we started in 2016, the scene was famously mostly whiny cishet white dudes singing about breakups,” says McCullough. “In the last few years it seems a lot of queer people and people of colour, who have always been making this kind of music underground, finally have had more of a chance in the spotlight. Seeing this representation has definitely kept me drawn to the scene, and I’m sure it’s attracted a lot of others who are finally finding a space in which they are accepted.”
Staska echoes their bandmate’s views, saying, “So many things pass as screamo or post-hardcore. There’s so much variety that it’s like, no matter what kind of heavy or extreme music you’re into, you can come find the depressed version over here. We have depressed powerviolence, depressed grindcore. It’s just good to have a roster of bands that you can turn to who put honest emotions front and centre, and who make dealing with difficult life moments their topical focus. I feel like there’s no posturing. None of us are trying to be tough or mask ourselves. We’re just yelling.”
And for Staska, that yelling comes both directly from lived experiences and from wanting to tell wider stories surrounding societal issues such as racism and homophobia. “For me, this album has a balance of very direct songs, and songs that are a little more cryptic,” the vocalist tells us. “I want my words to be more clear, because in my mind it’s like I’m secretly hoping those people hear it and immediately understand. I’m saying things I can’t really say to them directly, so I don’t want them to have to decode a bunch of metaphors to know it’s for them.”
Elsewhere, less personal songs tend to be slightly more obscure lyrically: “In my more cryptic songs I usually either just have a weird story I want to tell, or I’m talking about a broader social issue that’s just more fun to talk about allegorically. Like, I could write you a sermon about people using purposefully misinterpreted Bible verses to support a homophobic agenda, or I could tell you a story about a bunch of people in a burning plague land climbing a mountain made of salt to kill their rulers. Which would you rather hear?”
But even the songs that aren’t specific to Staska could only be written by them: “Even when the songs themselves aren’t necessarily about my own experiences, they’re definitely filtered through a kind of worldview that is informed by them. Beyond just influencing certain songs that are very much about moments of time or big life issues I’ve grappled with, my experiences definitely shape the way I write about things. What kind of metaphors or poetic framings I tend to lean toward, stuff like that. It informs everything. No matter what kind of story you’re trying to tell, you’re ultimately going to be doing it in a way that is moulded by your own experiences and emotions.”
Dreamwell’s members have put their heart and soul into Modern Grotesque, but releasing music during a pandemic has been an unusual challenge in itself. However, the band joke that even before any of us knew of the existence of Covid-19, this record was cursed.
“We started writing almost immediately after we released The Distance Grows Fonder in 2017, I’m pretty sure ‘Painting Myself A Darker Day’ and ‘Sayaka’ were done by the end of that year,” reveals McCullough. “We ended up parting ways with our original vocalist in 2018 and then getting flaked on and lied to by our first replacement vocalist. It wasn’t until mid-2019 that we asked KZ to join the band and were able to finish writing the last of the songs and get vocal parts nailed down.”
Even with a vocalist finally in place, though, things weren’t about to be smooth sailing. “We were set to get the entire album recorded in March of last year with Ryan Stack at The Noise Floor in New Hampshire,” the guitarist continues. “Right before we were supposed to track drums, our drummer Anthony [Montalbano] got injured at work and basically had to track with an infected stab wound to his leg. He could hardly walk into the control room to listen to his takes but somehow was killing it on drums and got through the entire album.”
And after that substantial hurdle was traversed, the pandemic began to interfere. “Shut downs came into effect before we could finish lead guitars and vocals and that really set things off track,” McCullough explains. “Originally we’d wanted this out in Summer/Fall of 2020. I ended up tracking lead guitars myself at my home studio, which I have now grown into Nu House Studios. After that everything was kind of up in the air because we didn’t have a good way to safely do vocals, until we were able to crank out vocals and remaining guitars in June/July during a lull in cases in New England. I was going to go back up to the Noise Floor in October to help Stack do the final mixdown, bailed at the last second, and then he ended up getting Covid. Finally, though, on November 1st 2020 we got the final mixes done, and thanks to a quick turnaround from Adam [Cichocki] at Timber Studios, had masters shortly after.”
“So long story short, the ‘approach’ was chaos.”
Despite the trials and tribulations to get the record done, the outcome is not only a cohesive album that bears no dents from its tumultuous creation, but a thing of beauty. Modern Grotesque is a record that will pull at your emotions in all the right ways.
Alongside bands like Respire, Deracine, Niboowin and Nuvolascura, Dreamwell are showing us why the screamo genre is reinvigorated right now, producing some of the most exciting heavy music in the world.
Modern Grotesque is out now. Order here.
Words: Tim Birkbeck
Photos: Jared Shute